After a year of upheaval and pandemic, and the unlikely conviction of a police officer, Minneapolis organizers Jonathan Stegall and D.A. Bullock talk with Truthout’s Kelly Hayes about what they have built and learned in the last year, what Derek Chauvin’s conviction does not accomplish, and what they hope people will do now as the struggle against policing continues.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know, if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.
Get our free emails
One day after a jury in Minneapolis found Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd, officials in Washington were expressing relief that “the convictions have lessened pressure for change,” according to a report in Axios. Relieved Republican and Democratic officials privately acknowledged that an acquittal could have led to another wave of mass protest and created bipartisan pressure for police reform. Even those in Washington who are still enthusiastic about reform are pushing legislation like the George Floyd Act, which, as author and attorney Derecka Purnell has pointed out, would not have saved George Floyd’s life. The bill would, instead, direct $750 million in federal funding to local police departments, to better investigate the murders they commit. In the grand tradition of police reform in the United States, the bill would offer more guidelines to ignore, more funding to exploit, and more legitimacy for a fundamentally racist and murderous institution.
“Order” is the primary concern of this government, which is why officials reliably conflate order with words like “justice” and “safety.” Sadly, decades of reform have only made injustice and the violent disposal of human beings more efficient and sophisticated, and more richly funded.
Fortunately, activists at the local level are offering a different vision, including in Minneapolis, where efforts to divert funding from the police department, in favor of life-giving services, significantly predate last summer’s protests. Those efforts saw a surge in support in the last year, as local organizers with groups like Reclaim the Block grappled with the realities of upheaval and the pandemic, the complications of visibility, and the pursuit of the long term goal of redirecting funds from the Minneapolis Police Department. In December, they saw a major victory when the Minneapolis City Council voted to cut $8 million from the city’s $170 million police budget and divert the funds to mental health and violence prevention. This was a major victory for the movement to defund police, and the product of fierce and committed organizing. So what can we learn from what they accomplished?
In today’s episode, we will be hearing from two organizers with Reclaim the Block, a grassroots coalition that has been pressuring the city of Minneapolis to divest from policing and invest in alternatives since 2018. Those organizers, Jonathan Stegall and D.A. Bullock, will share their reflections on the verdict, and their journey during the last year, and talk about what they hope will happen next. I was able to speak with Jonathan and D.A. only a couple of days after the verdict last week, and I am grateful they were able to make the time, amid everything they’ve been up against. I hope you all will hear what they have to say, and contemplate what we need to do in the coming days and weeks, because officials are counting on our complacency. They are betting that this verdict will slow our momentum and quiet our cries for justice. But what happens next isn’t up to them. It’s up to us.
KH: Today’s guests are Minneapolis organizers Jonathan Stegall and D.A. Bullock. Jonathan is a designer, a coder, and a faith-rooted organizer and abolitionist. He is a core team member of Reclaim the Block; and a board member of the Center for Prophetic Imagination, an organization that integrates spiritual formation, political action, and education. D.A. Bullock is a writer, an award winning filmmaker, and a member of the Reclaim the Block communications team. Jonathan and D.A., thanks so much for joining us today.
Jonathan Stegall: Thank you for having us.
D.A. Bullock: Yes. Thank you.
KH: So this has been a momentous week. How are you both doing?
DAB: I’m feeling, I still feel the tension of the moment. I know we had a lot of ebb and flow, so I’m literally sitting in a studio across the street from Daunte Wright’s funeral. So I’m also feeling a great deal of weight around that.
JS: Yeah. I resonate with that and I’m doing, you know, I’m doing okay. My daughter has been home the last couple of days because Minneapolis closed the public schools, or moved the public schools to virtual learning at home, so I’ve been dealing with that. And then just the weird tension of how everybody wants to feel in the city and how different everyone’s feelings are and, you know, wanting to validate those but also, as Mariame [Kaba] says, abolition is not about our feelings.
KH: And yet they are important.
KH: I do want to ask how your team and your community are doing, in the wake of the Chauvin verdict. I know this has been a heavy time, and that while a lot of people are satisfied with the outcome of the trial, there’s still a lot of complexity, grief and unaddressed harm to work through, not to mention exhaustion.
DAB: Yeah. I think we’re still resolute and really focused on the ultimate goal and know that there is quite a bit of work to do, and quite a bit of work to do in the short term and the term. So I feel like our team is certainly focused, but I’ve found that I think the community at large is still focused as well, which I think is encouraging.
JS: Yeah, I think that’s true. I feel like, you know, for us as a group, I think that having kind of abolitionist values at our core, it gives us something to hold on to, I think, that at least I don’t think I would have otherwise in these types of moments.
KH: Well, I am so glad that you all have each other and that your community has groups like Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective, who are attending to this moment. Now, I want to briefly take us back in time, because I want to talk about where we go from here, but to do that, I think people need to understand a little bit more about the journey you all have been on. I know Reclaim the Block kicked off its work back in 2018, organizing to move money from the Minneapolis police department into other areas of the city’s budget. And I know you all had some success with that in 2019, when the City Council voted to move $242,000 from the police budget and into the Office of Violence Prevention, which is a broad-reaching office that has the ability to fund community services in the name of violence prevention. Then, when the pandemic hit, I know you joined with other abolitionist organizations like The Red Nation, Black Visions Collective — who I know are a major anchor for you all, Survived and Punished, and the National Lawyers Guild, and many others, in endorsing a platform created by Critical Resistance, that I think everyone should check out, that’s called an “Abolitionist Platform Toward Healthy Communities Now and Beyond COVID-19.” So this was a time when many of us were trying to adapt our organizing, to make demands that made sense for our communities, amid a pandemic, to get mutual aid off the ground, and then George Floyd’s murder was caught on film, and there was an uprising in your community, and people across the country also felt called to action. And in the middle of that, as people were trying to figure out how to join in or show support, a whole lot of people were suddenly looking to you all. Can you say a bit about what that was like?
JS: Yeah, we had a lot of visibility at that point. And then we made some demands, like, “Hey, City Council, you’re gonna make a budget cut from the pandemic and your police department just killed George Floyd in front of the world. Let’s take some money out of that police budget again.” And you know, we released a set of demands, we did a — I don’t even remember what kind of direct action — small thing. And then the city just, as you know, it kind of arose around us. And, you know, we weren’t organizing direct actions en masse at that point. A lot of us were out in the streets with our community, but we weren’t doing that type of organizing; we were trying to push the City Council and trying to figure out what kind of things we could win in an abolitionist lens at that point. But just being in that contest, we think, made that demand to defund MPD, to abolish MPD, stick in a way that it hadn’t in previous — you know, certainly George Floyd wasn’t the first person MPD has publicly killed. And it wasn’t the first time that people have risen up in significant ways, but the demand has always been something different.
And so that was how things really shifted for us, at that point. We got a lot of local attention, a lot of national attention, a lot of donations and resources, and we had to figure out what to do with those things and how to, I think, how to handle those things in ways that were in accordance with our values. And then we had to figure out, are we going to hire people or whatever, how are we going to do that? How are we going to become something other than this group of, you know, 10 to 15 or however many people sitting in the living room into something else?
DAB: Yeah, and I would say, you know, for me, it was before I was officially part of the team. So during that time I was still relying, because I’m a filmmaker first and foremost, I was using a story-based strategy to sort of bring people along in political education about the possibility of defunding our police department and the ultimate possibility of abolition. But bringing people along through story form and relying a lot on sort of the activity and information that Reclaim the Block was putting out and Black Visions was putting out and developing a sensibility, you know, a story sensibility in the city itself, not necessarily knowing that something would happen like this, but kind of knowing that something would happen like this, just because we have a really distinct history of seeing police violence play out in a really dramatic way within our communities. So, I think, you know, a lot of my work being a storyteller was about tying those stories together, those histories, those past stories together, but also, you know, tying that to the imagination of what was possible. And I think that was feeding into a lot of the work that was going on before George Floyd was killed. And I think that was part of the thing that made the spark so instantaneous, that made it so combustible, that made it so powerful, that, you know, people were ready to go in the streets and make themselves heard. And I think that’s a powerful thing that was happening around the country, but it was certainly happening here.
KH: And all of this, of course, happening amid the pandemic, which had created a huge need for mutual aid and organizing specific to that crisis as well. So having been vouched for online by a number of abolitionist groups, you all saw a lot of donations. How did you all handle getting that influx of resources at such a time of great need? And how did you decide how to disperse and deploy those resources?
JS: Yeah, at first, I don’t think any of us expected any of that, anything like that to happen. And so, you know, it took us to, I think, a couple of weeks, and then we were like, “We should turn off our donation link.” And so we turned off all of our donation links and we made a list of local places that we wanted people to donate to instead. That was kind of the first, I think the first action that we took and we put, I think at least we tried to focus a lot on, you know, people that were doing emergency crisis response right in that time period. Some of them would be protest support groups. Some of them were helping Black businesses recover, and anything in between really. Whether we ideologically agree with them or not, we put them on the list if they were doing direct mutual aid or relief support. And that link, you know, it was just a Google Doc. [Editor’s note: An updated version of that document can be found here]. We didn’t make a website before we got internet famous. And so we just made a Google Doc and it kind of got everywhere. It was on the daily show. Trevor Noah said it, it got a lot of attention and we don’t know anything, certainly don’t know what people got out of it, but we put it out there as much as we could.
And then we started, you know, trying to make a plan for what to do with the money that we had and how to be accountable with it. And you know, we worked with Black Visions, you know. The way it worked was all of the money was kind of separate buckets, but it ultimately went to the same fiscal sponsor that Black Visions has. And so we made kind of an immediate term plan to just give away mutual aid requests to anybody — I mean, first come first serve basically to people who needed, especially if it was from things that happened during the uprising or I guess pandemic related. And I don’t remember exactly how much we distributed from that. It was more than a million dollars within a few weeks, maybe a month.
KH: And at that point, as I understand it, Black Visions Collective partnered with the non-profit Nexus to create the Transformative Black Led Movement Fund to determine how to distribute $3.1 million that your groups had raised to Black people and Black-led groups in Minneapolis, and I was really moved, when I learned about this process, because I have seen what happens, many times, in these sort of highly energetic movement moments, where the public becomes passionate, and a lot of donations come in, and the money gets concentrated in one or two places. And there are always questions among people in communities about where it should go, and how it should be deconsolidated. Oftentimes, the money does not get deconsolidated, and some organizations just wind up with very large sums of money, while other groups, that people maybe hadn’t heard about, don’t get funding. And sometimes, money does get redistributed, but only after a lot of extended drama, and on very acrimonious terms. What you all did here, and the process that Black Visions sort of co-led here, of creating a container for decisions about a just redistribution, led by Black people, without any gatekeeping from your group, I just find it very powerful.
DAB: Yeah. And I was on the committee that was formed out of just community members, Black community members who were willing to come together and sort of talk about how we — it’s basically how we would do philanthropy if we just had money at our disposal. And that was what the committee was. And that was actually my first sort of teaming or partnering with Reclaim the Block and Black Visions. And so I saw it from a community member standpoint, was this extraordinary opportunity to just give away money, like to really give it directly to folks and not have them jumping through hoops. A great, I don’t even know if it was, about half of the money, or close to half of the money was direct mutual aid, again to anyone who needed it, especially around issues around the uprising. And so, you know, I think it was like a real time ability for us as members of the Black community to create our own sort of redistribution of resources. And, you know, it was extraordinary. I’ve never been a part of anything quite like that before in my lifetime. And they actually made me think about a lot of the ways that the philanthropic and non-profit industry are built in Black communities, where they keep you beholden to a certain way of accessing resources and continually having to go back to that ask, and refining that ask, and making yourself worthy and all those kinds of things, whereas this was really just about seeing each other as neighbors, as community members and saying like, “What do you need? What do you need to be whole, and let’s try to do our best to take care of that.”
KH: Well, I hope other groups are paying attention to that experiment, and that we see more experiments like it in these moments. I was also really impressed with Reclaim the Block’s train the trainers effort around your most recent budget battle to reduce the Minneapolis Police Department budget. Can you say a bit about that effort?
JS: We were just like, “If you’re a group, you know, whether you’re official in some way or not, you want to come to these things? You know, we’ll train you on how to testify for budget demands that you have that align with ours.” How do you get your people to show up to these hearings, especially since they’re virtual? How do you get around the accessibility barriers that may exist? And how do you craft a testimony so that you don’t get cut off in the middle of a call or whatever? Just trying to bring people into that process in a way that made it transparent and accessible, as much as we could. And also, from that, at least my understanding was, we also used a lot of those connections to build, last year we called it The People’s Budget. And that was kind of what we were having people testifying in favor of. And our hope for the 2021 budget was that the city would adopt that. And it was, I don’t know, it was probably a $50 million MPD cut, and we worked together with those other folks to decide where that money would go. And, you know, of course we didn’t get that. That was our big push. And then the city ended up taking $8 million or whatever it was.
But that was kind of how we built, how we did those train the trainers. We would hold them over Zoom, then people would come and we teach them how to support those things and how to craft their own demands and then kind of ultimately, hopefully bring them back into what we were all advocating for together.
DAB: And I would say, you know, I think it’s resonant because it’s a simple iterative process, meaning like the steps to get involved, whether you have been doing this work forever, or it just came across your consciousness, you can plug into it and be assured that, you know, you can feel strongly about your sense of how you want to express yourself and how you want to do that engagement process with the city. Cause I think that’s been one of the impediments of normal everyday residents just getting involved is they feel like it’s all something that happens over there with experts and lobbyists and people who know what they’re doing. And I would say, you know, even from my own personal experience, it wasn’t any of that. It was very accessible. It was very much like, “Yeah, this is easy for me to plug into, and then it’s easy for me to even evolve it to fit, sort of the way I want to make my own statement” and that kind of thing, so.
JS: And then from there, our hope was that those organizations that came, you know, have sent representatives to those trainings we did, would take it back to their bases, you know the, let’s say tools. And even Black Visions would take up to their larger base. And the SURJ Chapter would take it to the larger base and, you know, the various, whatever organizations would come would bring that information to their bases and make it more accessible to those folks.
KH: I love that. And I love that you all were arming people up with a skill that can continue to be unpacked in various fights and in various efforts that folks will be enacting in your city. I just think that’s beautiful. And in this case, you all saw a huge victory, with the City Council voting in December to divert nearly $8 million from the proposed police budget, toward the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, which is just such a phenomenal win, and I am looking forward to seeing how that plays out.
Circling back to the moment we’re in, there’s been a lot of talk about how this verdict was not justice. Some people are saying it’s not justice, but it is accountability, and I strongly disagree with that because accountability is active and participatory, and even potentially transformational, and I don’t think we should pretend the state offers people that via the carceral system. We offer people that, when we organize peace circles and other processes and containers for accountability in our communities, and I think it’s dangerous anytime we allow the state to co-opt the work we do in community, and claim that restoration, or transformation, or accountability is what they are offering us, when they cage, punish and surveil people. I think that’s dangerous. Because those co-options are real, and they have real world consequences, and they will take us up on the opportunity to co-opt every time. What we have here, to whatever extent it plays out, is punishment. And people have varying opinions about how valuable or satisfying that is – people may find solace in it – but we seem to have consensus among like-minded people that this punishment is not justice, and that justice is what the public deserves, so what does justice look like?
JS: You want to go first D.A.?
DAB: Oh, sure. So, you know, I’ve been talking to a lot of people who are not very well versed in this movement. So, you know, they don’t necessarily parse terms, but I kind of break it down in a common sense way and ask them what justice looks like to them. And I’m talking about people who live in my neighborhood. I’m talking about other Black folks that I’ve been having this conversation with. And the thing that comes up for them time and time again is, “I want a guarantee that this will never happen to me, my son, to anybody I know, anybody that looks like me, ever again.” And then, you know, ultimately we walk down that path and come to the conclusion that the only way we can guarantee justice is to remove ourselves from this entire system as it exists right now. And so a couple of things happen in those conversations for me and for the person I’m having that conversation with is, it becomes more of a logical step and it’s not a radical, sort of, unimaginable thing. It’s actually the logical step toward what we want, which is justice, which is we don’t want to deal with this police system. We don’t want to be a victim of it ever again, which means we cannot interact with it. We cannot try to figure out a way to work with it around the margins and make it marginally different. We have to remove ourselves from that system and, you know, then we start to think about, like all the ways that carceral system, or that police system, is intertwined into our lives and thinking about all the ways that really influences our quality of life.
So I think, you know, terms like justice, I think, because they’re used so much by the system, we have a criminal justice system. I try to move away from them almost immediately anyway, and start talking to people about like, “What is your heart’s desire about how your son is being raised and he’s going to come up? And what do you see for his future? Like, if you’re painting the picture of his future, what does that look like? It doesn’t look like somebody, some armed person having control over you and him and your movements. It looks like freedom. It looks like ability to thrive. It looks like having all your needs met. It looks like a lot of things, but it never looks like, ‘Yeah, I want to have a slightly better way to call somebody with a gun to come to my house. Somebody I don’t know.’” So that’s a long-winded way of saying, I think we all know what real justice looks like, cause we’re all, you know, human beings living in this social contract. And I think that’s where I’m generally trying to have most of my conversations, not keeping them really locked in nuances around terminologies. Cause that’s where I think people got all in a bunch about defund or abolition or whatever that is. And I, you know, I’m having these conversations with people and I’m like, “Whatever out. Let’s not even talk about that. Like, what do you want for your son’s future? Tell me, paint the picture for me.” And then when they paint that picture for me, I’m saying, “Yeah, you know what, that’s an abolitionists future. We’re talking about the same thing. So let’s get down to this work of it.” So I feel the same way about justice. We know that, you know, my neighbors, we know we’re not going to find that in any system that exists right now. So we start immediately talking about, “Well, what are we building towards?”
JS: I really appreciate that a lot, D.A. I think I tend to, I do end up in different conversations and I do end up a lot of times trying to get people to be precise about which thing that it is that they’re talking about, you know. There were a lot of those memes that were like, you know, “This isn’t justice. This is accountability.” And I wanted to kind of, for those folks who are in my life, who are really into that, I wanted to kind of validate that like, you know, a year ago I think a lot more people would have said, “Oh, we got some justice.” And so it’s not insignificant that they didn’t want to use that word for what happened with the verdict. So, I did want to recognize that, but also say, “No, that you’ve kind of just shifted this punishment thing over to the word accountability, and these are three different words that we’re talking about and that’s important.” Yeah, I found, obviously, things that you have to say, things that Mariame [Kaba] has to say, super helpful in helping parse through those things. And I think, you know, in my personal conversations, I think a lot of people found that helpful, at least to wrestle with what it is that they’re feeling, you know. What is it that, even if we do feel like punishment is a good thing, what do we do with that information? I don’t think most of us like to think of ourselves as punishing people, although we live in a very, we live in a punishment full society. And I think there’s a lot of ways we try to cover over that and I wanted to kind of get at that. I feel like Mariame [Kaba] does a really good job at that when she talks about, you know, our community. If we have a set of communal values that are based in justice, then they can hold us up when we can’t hold ourselves up. I don’t know if those are the exact types of words that she uses, but that’s kind of how I hear them.
And so that’s kind of how I take it when I’m in those conversations. I think, as Reclaim the Block, we’ve always tried to put forward the idea that justice is when people have things that they need, when they have housing that is safe, that they can afford, when they have a clean environment that they can be in relationship with, when they have worker protection, when they’re not getting wage theft, when they, you know, all the other things that we’ve often had people organize with us to say, “Yes, we would like the money from the police because it will make us safe if we have the things that we build.”
And I guess the only other thing I would say is, I don’t remember how late into 2020 it was, but we were on a call, a group call, and we were watching, I think it was with Mimi Kim, and we were watching this video that The Intercept had put out, it was called “A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair.” And, you know, whoever was facilitating was like, “Y’all, don’t get the chance to think very much about 20 years in the future or, you know, further into the future than like, two weeks.” And you know, the video was just kind of creating this picture, literally an animated picture, you’ve probably, maybe seen it, of just like, “Here’s what happens when, you know, the last prison closes or when the pollinators come back.” There were all these images of the world that movements could build. And then we got through, “Here’s how all the movements got repressed, and here’s how they rose up. And here’s how the essential workers rose up.” You know, and all of these images that were very beautiful, and I literally cried in the Zoom call watching this video. And I think about it often still, when I think about that.
KH: I would agree that it’s a very positive development, that a lot of people don’t consider this verdict justice, and that while a lot of people may have found some solace in this moment, they are not satisfied with this outcome, and I do think that’s progress. I also loved what you had to say D.A., because I like the idea of talking to people about what they want, and about what their hearts desire, for their families, for their communities, as a way of centering that conversation, because the word justice is very tied up in punishment and in the system, for a lot of people. And I was just talking with Ruthie Gilmore the other day about how even the word freedom is really mixed up with the system in ways that can be really damaging sometimes. That sometimes we say freedom when what we mean is access to the ability to harm other people in the ways that we’ve been harmed, or access to forms of state violence being enacted in ways that we want them enacted. So I really like this idea of talking to people about what it is they need, and what it is it would take for people to live freely and safely, and create safety in their communities, and absolutely that calls for abolition.
One thing that I have seen that I find really unfortunate lately is some people using George Floyd as a new standard by which to judge people who are killed by the police. In cases like Adam Toledo’s, I see people saying, “This was not a George Floyd situation.” Because the murder of George Floyd, they argue, was a clean cut case of police brutality, and the kind of thing we should all clearly object to, whereas other cases, like Adam’s, they say, are just the police doing their jobs. We also see that kind of exceptionalization happening among public officials, like Nancy Pelosi, who in the wake of the verdict said, “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.” Now, as many people have pointed out, George Floyd did not sacrifice himself for anything, because he did not choose his fate. It was chosen for him by a cop who murdered him. But this valorization, in my mind, is part of a larger effort to divide the George Floyd case from the everyday violence of policing. And I think they are pushing the idea, as a matter of structural maintenance, that he’s not like Adam Toledo, or Ma’Khia Bryant, or others who are killed by police. He’s a hallowed saint, who sacrificed himself for our sins, allowing us to punish his killer, making our country magically a more just place. What are your thoughts on this exceptionalization we are witnessing?
DAB: I think it plays right into the vast mythological, magical thinking of how people form their vision of what policing actually is versus what it actually practically is, in our lifetime. And what I mean by that is, it’s easy for people, at this point, to play into the mythology, to play into the magical thinking that, like you said, “George Floyd was an exceptional case. Derek Chauvin was an exceptionally evil individual.” And then it absolves everybody from really looking at practically, what is right in front of their face. Again, so that’s why I always try to bring people back from the theoretical to actually what they actually experienced in their own lifetime, right? I talk to people and ask them all the time like, “You think about the times when you were most in peril in your lifetime.” And this for me, personally as well, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and I thought back at the times when I was in peril. I was robbed at gunpoint at one point on the South Side of Chicago.
And at no point, did some heroic figure in a uniform come and save me. So, that’s the first stripping down of this mythology and asking ourselves, is there any instance where the introduction of that force has actually been helpful in our lives? Saving us in a time of peril or changing the trajectory of a bad situation. And most often when I talk to people from their personal experience, nobody has ever had that experience of the mythology. Nobody’s had the experience of that magical thinking that aligns you with an idea that you need them to come in and make these split second decisions because they’re always under this constant danger, and they’re always facing these extraordinary threats. And then you start to just relate it to, again, the practical nature of what they see in front of them which is mostly police officers who show up after something happens and they tape off the block and they stand around, they kibitz to one another and they get on their phone.
And when you see this, you see this in the community, and you realize all these exceptions that are being made to keep that structure in place are based on a myth. They’re not based on the reality. They’re based on a magical thinking that, this thing is somehow valuable, that it’s going to save your life one day. When actually, it’s not.
And I think that’s a hard thing for people to face when that has just been the standard to believe in the magic, all your life. So, I feel obviously systems use that to their advantage and as self-preservation and we’re seeing that here. There’s nothing exceptional about the violence that was perpetrated on George Floyd. It happens all the time. In fact, MPD does it all the time. They did it during the trial on tape. MPD officers put their knees on the neck of a resident who was trying to stand up for a houseless encampment, here near where I live. So, I think, if people really took an honest look at the practical way they live their lives and what they see right in front of them, it has to conflict with that magical thinking. It has to conflict with that exceptionalism that is trying to be sold to them.
JS: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think we’ve always tried to use that narrative that what happened at George Floyd is not exceptional. Like D.A. said, MPD does this, all the time. Even the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, wouldn’t have saved George Floyd. The things that they think are so exceptional to get rid of, wouldn’t have helped him. And this also brings me back. I remember, a few years ago, there was an online conversation around, “What if Black Lives Matter as a movement had focused more on Tamir Rice than Michael Brown? Maybe it would have had a better public perception or something.” And then, the man who killed Tamir Rice got off as well. Or almost never, has anybody exceptionally enough to make that work unless there’s a massive uprising. And then maybe the system will decide, “Yeah, we can throw away that one, that cop,” even though the practices are not exceptional.
KH: I see the state really trying to reinforce the standards of innocence. During the trial, I remember people making a big deal about how we needed to call it the Chauvin trial and not the George Floyd trial, because it was Derek Chauvin who was on trial and not George Floyd. And I remember thinking like, “Yes, let’s call it that. But also let’s name that George Floyd really is on trial because the victims of police shootings are always on trial.” And I don’t think we should pretend that the system operates outside that reality. In truth, this society puts people on trial in the news and in popular discourse, the moment they are killed by a cop. It’s always a question of whether they were innocent enough to live. Which is appalling because we are usually talking about people who live in a context where they have already been deemed disposable, for the sake of order. Because people do all kinds of things in the disaster zone of late capitalism, like, good, bad, and indifferent.
Some people, like police, get to act with relative impunity. Some people, like affluent white people, get to act with a low degree of consequence. And some people, like Black people, are subject to execution for virtually any offense or even no offense at all. So of course, people living within zones of disposability and organized abandonment are sometimes going to do things that we find troubling, and even cause very real harm.
But when we position the police who enforce the very inequality that generates so much harm as fundamentally legitimate in their actions, unless there is a nine minute and 29 second video of them slowly killing a completely helpless unarmed person, we are maintaining those dynamics. And I don’t think we should be structural maintenance workers. I think when people say, “But Adam Toledo was running from the cops at 2:00 a.m. and he had been armed that night.” I think we should ask, “But why?” And not let neoliberal mayors like Lori Lightfoot get away with saying things like, “The social safety net failed this child,” when she is the one refusing to fund that safety net and instead shuffling millions of dollars into the hands of the police department, that killed that child, every chance she gets.
DAB: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. And it makes me think about, what are our ultimate goals? Is it to have more distinctions between what is so-called justified killings of people or to just not have killings of people, right? I think people need to always be able to take a step back and ask them, when they’re steadily trying to find those, carve out those exceptions for police to continue their activity, I’m always asking them, “Why?” Like, “Why do you need them to have a justified reason for killing someone?” Like, “Why is that your desire?” Or is your desire that people are not getting killed anymore? So, there are some distinct choices that we need to make as people who are living together about, like you said, we don’t want maintenance of a system where we’re all at each other’s throat potentially, mistrusting of one another in a fight for limited things. Right? Is that our desire? Or is our desire that everybody’s feeling pretty good about their life, their potential, the things that could happen, they’re feeling hopeful and they’re ready to do things to help one another, and they’re ready to do things to support one another because they’re not in that competition for survival, right? And then ask ourselves, how do the police, what part do they play in that? Do they alleviate and eliminate that dog-eat-dog thing? Or do they exacerbate that? Or maintain it, in order to keep themselves in their position of getting that budget every year? And those questions, they’re pretty straight forward. You don’t have to know a lot about the philosophy of, you don’t have to know a lot about economics, or a lot of these other things that you may learn in the higher education institutions, to answer common sense questions about how you’re living, and why you’re making the decisions.
I had a conversation with one of our council members and she had to admit to me that police don’t keep us safe. But her admission of that was after a long conversation. And we had to talk through it, and it was begrudgingly, to admit a certain thing that was pretty much common sense and common knowledge in our community. And I just found that fascinating that she did so much work, in order to support that non-common sense. So, it just fascinates me how much we put into supporting something that wouldn’t support itself without all our buttress that we put up with our thought process.
JS: Yeah. I think that’s great. I don’t know that I have anything to add to that.
KH: Absolutely. I think one of our biggest stumbling blocks is this baseline legitimacy that we lend to the police, in spite of all that evidence, right? Like in Chicago, it’s not just activists who have documented the hell out of the fact that the Chicago Police are racist and sexually abusive, and that they murder and torture people. The United Nations has spoken to this. The Department of Justice has documented this thoroughly. And yet, people feel they have to lend them this baseline legitimacy when they show up and intercede in a situation.
It’s been heartbreaking to watch that conversation around the case of Ma’Khia Bryant, because we have people watching this tape en masse, and critiquing this situation, the death of this child, as though what she was doing in those moments decided her fate. When in reality, a whole confluence of violent structural forces, all of them anti-Black, led to that cop gunning her down. And I hope that’s something that people are willing to explore and think about in this moment. We don’t have to assume the legitimacy of the police. We don’t have to critique videos and narratives according to their prescribed set of policies that supposedly make it okay for them to hurt people. We can imagine how things should be, and build demands around that. We can ask what would have actually given someone a chance to survive and to thrive, and we can demand that. So, all of that said, in an immediate, strategic sense, what are you hoping people will do in the wake of this verdict? And do you have any asks for our listeners?
JS: You want to go first, D.A.?
DAB: I was going to ask you the same thing. I think immediately, like I said, I’m right across the street from Daunte Wright’s funeral as we speak. So, I can’t help but just ask that the people not – it’s okay to have the human sensibility of just breathing and exhaling, and I understand that because I did it myself once this verdict happened, but pretty soon after that, I was thinking about Daunte Wright, I was thinking about everyone who we need to just not allow for the system to just offer us this up as something that it is not. And we don’t have to accept that. We know what we know, and we know that there is nothing that happened in this particular case, guilt or innocence, verdict or not, Derek Chauvin going to be punished off somewhere, that is going to change our material condition of living tomorrow with these police departments in our cities. We know that for a fact.
So, our next steps should be appropriate to that fact. Not appropriate, again, to the romanticism of, “Wow, we have this conviction, now the world has changed. Now, we have a new path forward.” Which a lot people are trying to sell that to you currently. They took that first opportunity to make sure you knew that we’re in a brave new world now, which is a lie. You know what I mean? We know that. Again, we know what we know, we know what is right in front of us. And we know the history. The conviction of Van Dyke for Laquan McDonald’s murder, the next day in Chicago, everybody you could talk to, all the brothers on the South Side and the West Side and they would tell you, “It was business as usual with the police.”
And we know that, again, from our own experiences. So, I would say on the short term, the first step is to just make sure you are guarded and just aware against the forces, the rhetorical forces, that are going to come to tell you, “Don’t believe your lying eyes and your lying experience. Believe what we’re telling you that, this is a new day.” It’s not a new day. We’re back to work on the next day. And there are some distinct things that are happening within our city that we know can really change the potential of how we are taking this step process and removing the Minneapolis Police Department from our midst. And one of them is, we have a charter, we have a constitution of our city that mandates that we have them amongst us. So, we know one of the first steps that we have to do in the short term is to change that constitution of our city, change that charter. And I know that that’s something a lot of people are focused on and dedicated to because without that, obviously we can’t shift certain structural things without that very start. It’s like the key opening up the lock that allows us to open up the door.
JS: Yeah. I think that’s right. Yeah, the immediate thing, I feel like, is to remember that this system isn’t going to reform itself. It’s not going to give us a new possibility. We have to create that together, ourselves. Yeah, and in Minneapolis, one of the next immediate steps is in November that ballot amendment to take MPD out of the charter. Hopefully get it before the voters and hopefully we’ll have done enough work by then, that they understand why this is a good thing, and the kind of possibilities that it does open up. And even that, it doesn’t necessarily do anything on its own. It takes away some barriers within it. It puts that possibility in our hands, again, as organizers, as people that care about what a just, safe city looks like, who are able to see that safety and policing are not the safe things. And then to figure out what that means.
KH: Well, this has been a great conversation and I want to thank you both, with my whole heart, for joining us today. And to really thank you for all that you do.
JS: Thank you for having us. I never miss an episode. So, it’s an honor to hear you.
DAB: Yes. Thank you, Kelly. Thank you for everything you do. I’m a big fan and supporter and I’m so happy that we’re all out here together as fam, doing this work.
KH: Absolutely. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
If you haven’t yet, we recommend you check out last week’s episode of Movement Memos, “You Cannot Divorce Murder From Policing,” a discussion with author Alex Vitale about the history and current state of policing in the U.S.
Minneapolis Activists Ask Local Leaders to Invest in Communities, Not Cops by Isabella Garcia
Minneapolis Defunds Its Police. Organizers Made It Happen. by Malaika Jabali
We Are Fighting for a World Where Ma’Khia Bryant Would Have Lived by Amna A. Akbar & Treva B. Lindsey
Uncaging Humanity: Rethinking Accountability in the Age of Abolition by Mariame Kaba, Josie Duffy Rice, and Reina Sultan
A World Where George Floyd And Ma’Khia Bryant Would Still Be Here Is A World Without Police by Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie
Critical Resistance’s Abolitionist Platform Toward Healthy Communities Now and Beyond COVID-19
Defund Police (This short explainer video collaboration from Project Nia and Blue Seat Studios.)
One Million Experiments offers “snapshots of community-based safety strategies that expand our ideas about what keeps us safe.”
The Demand Is Still #DefundPolice (a toolkit)